Legislators field questions at breakfast session


JASPER — The questions at Saturday’s legislative breakfast at Vincennes University Jasper ran the gamut.

State Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, and State Rep. Steve Bartels, R-Eckerty, fielded the questions and talked about the session, which started Jan. 6. State Rep. Shane Lindauer, R-Jasper, and State Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, were not able to attend.

One of the early questions was about the purpose of the legislative breakfasts.

“Do you agree with the Jasper Chamber of Commerce’s statement that the purpose of today’s legislative breakfast is to allow constituents to listen to learn from our legislators, as they tell the various happenings and upcoming bills and the current legislative session,” Chamber Executive Director Nancy Eckerle read. “Please give your reason for your answer.”

Both agreed with the statement.
“I came the last 20, 25 years as a citizen to hear what’s going on. And I always anticipated that was the primary objective of it,” Messmer said. “It allows the process to flow more, I think more efficiently.”

Then he addressed the issue by which the statement was made. The chamber was asked to return to a format of allowing people to ask questions directly to legislators; the chamber opted to keep the written format.

“I think last year, you changed the format of it to make it a little more efficient,” Messmer said to Eckerle, “and not getting the same question asked five times in a row, or somebody having a 10- or 15-minute speech with no question.”

Bartels said legislators are always accessible to constituents. “I give out my cellphone. You can email me, call me direct,” he said. “So if there’s an individual issue, you’re more than welcome to talk to me on a one-on-one basis. But I think I agree with the intent here is everybody gets a chance to ask a question.”

They were asked about the state controlling brush and invasive species that grow along the interstate. Bartels said there’s been problems with the Indiana Department of Transportation mowing and taking care of those areas. Private companies do the work for INDOT, he explained.

“INDOT has some problems with their contract people,” he said. “What we’re hoping to do is force them to say, ‘OK, you’ve breached the contract,’ the state recoups money and then hire somebody else.”

But doing that is different with the public sector as opposed to the private sector. “With government, it takes a lot longer,” Bartels said. “So, I’m still fighting that fight.”

Messmer said he has talked to INDOT about areas that have been brought to his attention. “I’ve got constituents that watch, and I give them specific mile markers and highway locations,” he said. “And every time I call, they go out and spray it.

“I’ll continue to keep the heat on INDOT,” Messmer said. “And anytime you’ve got areas where you know it needs attention, let me know.”

The legislators were asked about providing tax relief to residents, in particular the working class. The questioner suggested a reduction in the sales tax.

“I’m not sure you’re going to see a sales tax reduction,” Bartels said. “That really has not been discussed. I think that with our current tax base right now, the intent is to work within our means. And that’s why you see Indiana being very fiscally responsible with the money we have coming in. We’re very cautious on our surplus money and how we spend it.”

In some cases, money is spent on different projects and areas in order to save money in the future, Bartels said. “So we look to those long-term, decision-making processes. I’m not sure you’re going to see anything in the next couple years on that,” he said.

“Sales tax is our budget source across the state,” Messmer said. “We’ve reduced property taxes. We’ve reduced income taxes, eliminated the inheritance tax. The sales tax doesn’t apply to food, it doesn’t apply to medicine, it doesn’t apply to many things that are considered necessities for life.”

The legislators were asked if they reviewed the appeal that has been filed with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the Environmental Protection Agency regarding the air permit for the direct-coal hydrogenation proposed for Dale. Both said no.

“I have a limited amount of time. I deal with things that I can have some impact on,” Messmer said. “And if the state air permit is being challenged, there is a process in place that’s going to let that play out. The challenge will occur. Whether it will be approved or denied, they’ll either move forward, or they won’t. And I don’t have the ability to impact that.”

Both indicated they trusted the agencies in charge to make the right decisions.

“I probably won’t look at it unless there’s, you know, there’s something that was brought to my attention I need to look at,” Bartels said. “I’m not an expert about IDEM and the EPA. So if it’s challenged and something is revealed, then so be it. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

Through other questions, the legislators also talked about how they hear from constituents, the role of lobbyists, how budget funding is split into departments, bringing broadband service to unserved and underserved areas, how failing schools are handled, and the chamber’s staff that collect and analyze economic data.

U.S. Rep. Mike Braun, R-Indiana, was also at Saturday’s session, and talked about the activities of Congress. He also took questions and comments from the audience, and was asked about helping to save family farms from going into extinction.

“We’ve got competition across Africa, South America and many places that are doing it themselves,” Braun said. “And you’ve got a concentrated industry of larger corporations that don’t bring prices down when commodity prices are low. So I don’t know what the solution is.”

It may be that farms need to change, he indicated.

“There’s a thing called regenerative farming, which is different from sustainable farming. It doesn’t rely so much on chemicals,” Braun said. “And I think farmers, through hemp and other things, need to look at alternatives.

He said farmers “are the most resilient, tough, small businesses in the country.

“And I think they’ll do it,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t go to where in the long run farms get larger, it becomes more corporate and more agribusiness. I think that’s the wrong way.”

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